STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — After another dispiriting, one-possession loss, Penn State coach James Franklin stood firm in explaining why he thought his best short-yardage play at that moment involved one kicker throwing to another.
"I'd make the call again," Franklin said.
Penn State's fake field goal vs. Michigan on Saturday joined 4th-and-5 against Ohio State in 2018 in the catalog of inexplicable moments during critical games that Franklin's teams have lost. This time, the Lions fell 21-17 to No. 6 Michigan in a game they could have won — a game they thought was theirs late in the fourth quarter.
Franklin is 66-32 in nearly eight seasons as Penn State's head coach, with 19 of those losses ending in one-possession finishes. The Lions have lost three more one-possession games this season, all torturous for their own reasons, and Saturday's result bore its own labored frustrations.
In the name of being aggressive, Penn State called a quantifiably low-percentage fake field goal in the first quarter, a play that Michigan reacted to perfectly. Then, after delivering a strong-willed rally to tie the game in the fourth quarter, Penn State's offense did this:
- Abandoned its newly energized run game with 6:45 remaining, choosing instead to throw on six of seven plays. Quarterback Sean Clifford went 1-for-6 on those attempts.
- Threw three passes (all incompletions) to a receiver who had been targeted seven times prior to Saturday.
- Left Clifford, who absorbed seven sacks and several more hits, out to dry without any run-game help on the last two series.
This was a coaching disintegration, one that cost the team at least seven points with its decision-making, which has become a theme across those 19 one-possession losses. So what happened this time? Let's start with the fake field goal.
Penn State's offense shot itself out of a cannon to start the game, putting together back-to-back 14-play drives. Franklin said afterward that he planned to call an aggressive game, even on special teams. (Which meant turning kicker/punter Jordan Stout into a quarterback and receiver, but OK).
Yes, a fake punt worked on a nice throw by Stout to linebacker Curtis Jacobs, leading to a field goal on the first series.
But Franklin and special teams coordinator Joe Lorig chased one too many dragons on the next series, calling for a fake field goal from the 2-yard line. The play required kicker (and holder) Rafael Checa, who has never attempted a pass, to throw a perfect ball — and for Stout to catch it and outrun three Michigan defensive backs.
There's aggressive and there's defiant. This was the latter.
Stout said the Lions worked the play "quite a bit this week" because they expected to run it. The fake even worked a few times in practice. But against Michigan, Stout had to outrun three Michigan defensive backs even with a perfect throw.
But because Penn State entered the game tied for 11th in the Big Ten in red-zone touchdowns, Franklin thought this was the team's best chance. His words.
"You guys know as well as I do that we have not been great in short-yardage situations, so that was our going-for-it on fourth down," Franklin said. "I felt like we had the look we wanted, but it's about details. The ball was to the back hip, and Jordan is not the type of guy who’s going to be able to catch a ball that’s thrown behind him and still be able to outrun the defense. We've just got to clean it up. The margin of error was really small."
That's an astonishing admission, to suggest that a pass play between two kickers was the best option in that situation. If so, take the 20-yard field goal. Next.
Keyvone Lee, who had season-highs of 20 carries and 88 yards, mustered some surge in the fourth quarter. He rushed for 25 yards on seven carries on a touchdown drive, helping Penn State tie the game on a series highlighted by three fourth-down conversions. Lee didn't touch the ball again.
Penn State had time to run; it began ensuing drives with 6:45 remaining and 3:29 left. On the first series, Clifford scrambled once and threw two incompletions, one to senior Cam Sullivan-Brown (he of the seven targets this season). The result: a field goal and a 17-14 lead.
On the next series, Franklin and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich made odder decisions. Clifford threw twice to Sullivan-Brown, including a low-percentage attempt on 4th-and-2. Jahan Dotson (nine catches, 61 yards) wasn't on the field, having been hurt on the previous play.
According to the NCAA rulebook, Dotson had to miss the fourth-down play. But the choice was low-percentage again. And, with about 3 minutes remaining, the Lions could have run on 3rd-and-2. It was four-down territory.
"Obviously that's not the time you want to lose Jahan Dotson," Franklin said. "At that point in the game, you're thinking players, not plays. It was a critical play in the game."
Made more critical by the decision. Of course, the line between aggressiveness and foolishness hinges on a play's success. But Franklin and his staff leaned too far in the wrong direction Saturday, and it cost them.
"We were going to call the game today in an aggressive way to give us the best chance to win the game," Franklin said. "We’ve got to find ways to execute, and we’ve got to do a better job coaching."